Providing a Laptop and Online Math Lessons

Resources are indeed important in delivering quality basic education. Those of us who have given to poor students in schools recognize right away and unmistakably the immense gratitude and excitement we receive from beneficiaries. How we help can also come in different flavors. It could be "high touch" where we sacrifice our own time and spend considerable effort to help educate or it could be "low touch" where we simply provide tools that may help students to learn. Either way, the response is particularly positive, from students, their parents and teachers. Whether what we have contributed is effective or not, however, remains to be addressed. We can easily make students smile. Making students learn more is a different question.

Lynch and Kim at Harvard recently reported a study examining the effects of a "low touch" intervention. They provided free subscriptions to an online math lesson and a laptop to poor children. More than 200 students (which include elementary, middle and high school pupils) participated in the study. These students were randomly assigned to three groups: (1) Free subscription only, (2) Free subscription plus laptop, and (3) Nothing (control). At the end of the intervention period (one summer), family and student engagement in mathematics was measured. For this outcome, the results were not surprising: There was significantly greater engagement especially for those who receive a free laptop. Who would not be thrilled to receive a free laptop anyway? The more important question of whether the intervention effectively improved learning outcomes was addressed by examining scores in the Fall math standard assessments. The results were summarized by the authors in the following graph:

Above copied from
Kathleen Lynch and James S. Kim
Effects of a Summer Mathematics Intervention for Low-Income Children: A Randomized Experiment
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 0162373716662339, first published on August 19, 2016 doi:10.3102/0162373716662339

I added a red line to show where "0" (no effect) lies. Below this line, scores are lower than average, above this lines, scores are higher. The effects of the intervention on math scores are statistically insignificant if students are treated as one group. The intervention has no effect on how much math students have learned. However, when the students are separated between elementary and high school, there are some effects, as demonstrated in the above figure. Providing free subscription to an online math lesson over the summer apparently led to poorer performance among elementary school children.

Clearly, helping alone is not sufficient. It is probably necessary but not sufficient. How we help counts as well.